Perhaps it's a little early to write a preview for the Toronto Maple Leafs, so I'll make sure to do another one a little closer to the season opener. I figured it might be nice to get some of you Leaf fans salivating in excitement for the season though.
First of all, I should review the off-season so far for the Buds.
The Leafs made several significant moves. The biggest of course, being the Toskala trade which saw the Leafs send a 1st round draft pick, a second round draft pick and a fourth round draft pick to San Jose for Vesa Toskala and Mark Bell. They also signed the speedy and skilled winger, Jason Blake. There were a few minor signings as well including the signings of Scott Clemmenson and Simon Gamache.
My quick thoughts on the moves? Well, the team is without a doubt an improved squad. However, I'm of the opinion that the Leafs are a total rebuild away from being a contender. So my opinion is that in the long-run, this is a bad off-season for the Leafs. They lost the opportunity to gain 3 prospects and also took roster spots away from younger players like Jeremy Williams and Kris Newbury.
Don't get me wrong though, Vesa Toskala is an excellent goaltender. He is going to be a real treat to watch. Jason Blake is a a locker room nightmare, in my opinion, but he's a highly skilled nightmare. I doubt he's going to score 40 goals again but 30 isn't out of the question.
What preview would be complete without analyzing the team at every position?
Let's start in net. It's funny, last year members of the media wrote and talked about how much the goaltending had improved for the Leafs since the 2005-2006 season with the acquisition of Andrew Raycroft. I was unconvinced. I had very little confidence in Raycroft. Needless to say, I was furious with the Raycroft trade.
This year I am more confident in the Leafs goaltending. As I have already said, I think Toskala is an incredible player. Hopefully Raycroft will at least be a good back-up.
The only question I have about Toskala is, did he look better than he really is in San Jose thanks to a good defense? Will he struggle in front of the likes of Bryan McCabe and Pavel Kubina?
I really don't like the Leafs defense for two reasons, which I already mentioned. Bryan McCabe and Pavel Kubina.
Bryan McCabe has a rocket of a shot but he doesn't seem to realize that there's a little something called "defense" in the word "defenseman". I know, that's old news, but it had to be said.
Pavel Kubina is an interesting player to me. I want to like him but I just can't. He's fairly tough and he's smart defensively but the problem is, he's just too slow. I always catch him heading in the right direction but never getting to his destination in time. It's a shame he isn't a faster player because I really believe he would be a top 10 defenseman in the NHL if he was a stronger skater. Perhaps if Kubina tried to pay more of a stay-at-home style he would be more effective.
Aside from Kubina and McCabe I actually really like the Leafs defense.
I think Carlo Colaiacovo is extremely underrated. He's without a doubt the second-best defenseman on the Leafs. He's a great skater, a good passer, he is highly skilled with the puck, he has a surprisingly good shot and he isn't terrible in his own end either. I am a huge fan of Carlo. I'm hoping he can have an injury-free season this year and emerge as a top pairing defenseman for Toronto.
Ian White is another underrated defenseman in my opinion. He has a good shot, he's fairly tough and he isn't a bad skater. My only problem with White is his positioning. If he could improve his positioning he would without a doubt be a top 4 defenseman on plenty of teams. I see Ian White as a poor man's Nicklas Lidstrom.
Hal Gill is underrated as well, although not by Leafs fans. I'll admit, a year ago I believed Hal Gill was a terrible acquisition but he did a good job changing my mind. He's not fast and he isn't as tough as he should be for his size but his poke-check is jaw-dropping. His long reach will catch you by surprise no matter how many times he does it. Another good quality of Gill is his positioning. Last but not least, I'm thankful for how he has helped Ian White to develop. I hope Hal Gill sticks around for many years and helps to develop defenseman.
Tomas Kaberle...do I really need to talk about Tomas Kaberle? He's amazing. In my opinion he's one the top 5 best defenseman in the league. His passes are nearly perfect, he's a swift skater, he positions himself well, etc. etc. etc. The only knock you could make on Kaberle is that he isn't physical at all but his other skills more than make up for it.
The other Leafs defensemen are Steffan Kronwall, Andy Wozniewski, Jay Harrison, and Wade Belak. Kronwall is almost assured the 7th spot after signing a 1-way contract. I'm not sure where that leaves Andy Wozniewski or Wade Belak. I imagine they'll find themselves on the Marlies along with Jay Harrison.
The Leafs offense is puzzling. The puzzling part is where each player fits in to the line-up. It's a big mess. The Leafs have far too many second-line players and not enough first-line players.
My other big problem with the Leafs offense is that it will likely be streaky again next season. You only have about two players in Mats Sundin and Jason Blake who you can probably count on to consistently score. The rest of the offense is full of players who are more than capable of putting the puck in the net but not always at the right times.
Let's look at it this way. Mats Sundin and Jason Blake are capable of putting up 30+ goals. Alexei Ponikarovksy, Nik Antropov, Alexander Steen, Darcy Tucker and Mark Bell are all capable of putting up about 20 goals but you can't count on them to deliver consistently. The Leafs offense relies too heavily on hoping that someone hopefully scores at a good time. Instead of having designated scorers the idea is that everyone will contribute but the problem with that is that some nights that will work and others it won't. I hope I'm making sense here. In a nutshell, I am doubting the team will be able to pot goals when it counts.
Next on the agenda, prospects. Personally the only prospects I see having a chance of making the club are Jeremy Williams and Anton Stralman.
Jeremy Williams is long-overdue for a real chance to prove himself at the NHL-level. He has an excellent shot and knows where to position himself to pull off the shot. His weakness is his defensive awareness.
Anton Stralman is a mystery. Some people have gone as far as to call him the next Nicklas Lidstrom. To be quite honest, I haven't seen enough of him to judge him yet. Hopefully he sticks around for some pre-season games this year. Stralman had an excellent season last year and really attracted a lot of attention.
So where will the Leafs finish this season? It's impossible to say of course, but my prediction is anywhere between 6th and 13th. There are a lot of question marks. Can the team score consistently? Can Pavel Kubina and Bryan McCabe improve their defensive game? How will Vesa Toskala do infront of a new defense? And of course, what part will injuries play?